Friday, July 20, 2012

Something on which I agree with John Boehner, John McCain, and Ed Rollins

Well, I violated my own rules: I got sucked into a political exchange on Facebook.  (My rules--or at least my feelings--are explained here: 2012/07/politics-and-facebook_09.html .) 

This time it was on Michele Bachmann's accusations against Huma Abedin.  What I did was respond to a post by a relative and friend that asked what people thought about Bachmann's defense of the accusations in an interview with Glenn Beck.  I have to admit to a bias against Beck, who strikes me as borderline crazy (that's not a clinical judgment, just a general assessment of his style and some of his opinions).  But in the Facebook exchange I was mainly thinking of Bachmann, who has been a repeat offender in misrepresenting facts and whose challenging of other people's status as "true Americans" has always bothered me and struck me as dangerous.

So I made a brief statement of my view (including my agreement with John McCain's and Ed Rollins's statements on the subject) and added a link to what Rollins said.

My relative/friend then posted a quotation from "The American Thinker" (apparently the source of Bachmann's information) and asked if it was true or false.  I had to admit I didn't really know for sure.  I speculated, "It's probably a mix of true and false," and then said: "I don't have personal knowledge about most of the accusations. I've heard some of them persuasively refuted (that her fellow Minnesota congressman, a Muslim, has ties to the Muslim Brotherhood, for instance). Other accusations might be true (that the aide may be related to people who are associated with certain organizations).  I believe a lot of people are currently working on checking the facts. The reason I'm concerned about the anti-Islamic, guilt-by-association, and conspiracy-to-take-over-the-government flavor of some of the accusations is that this general approach has shown itself historically to be dangerous and destructive, even when partly based on facts. The other reason I'm cautious about the accusations is that I'm used to hearing lots of distorted accusations about the [LDS] Church, and so I like to give other persecuted groups the benefit of the doubt as much as I reasonably can.  I think all this will get sorted out with time, if people remain level headed."

I felt awkward even saying that much and felt I didn't want to get further involved, partly because really figuring out the facts in matters like this is complicated and partly because I worried that I'd do damage to my relationship with the relative/friend I was responding to.  I've learned that there are a good number of people I love and respect and get along with happily but do best to avoid engaging in political discussions with, since the love and respect and, especially, the getting along happily can be strained by political passion.

I also felt awkward because of the difficulties of having a real discussion on Facebook.  Even a full paragraph (which in my experience often corresponds with a complete thought) seems awfully long on Facebook.  And trying to put together a series of connected thoughts on a complicated subject would require the kind of space associated with an essay or a blog post.  Facebook is obviously not intended for pieces of that length.

So here--without taking the time to become an expert on the question--I'll share some of my thoughts both on the issue itself (the accusations) and on why I've reacted as I have.

When I first heard the accusations, I was suspicious for several reasons: (1) I was aware of Michele Bachmann's past history of making wildly inaccurate and sometimes inflammatory statements (see, for instance, and ).  (2) I'm suspicious of any accusations that seem politically motivated, whoever is making them.  (3) I generally dislike negative attacks, especially against the character or patriotism of particular people.  It's not that some people don't have character problems or flaws in their patriotism.  But I like giving people the benefit of the doubt and try not to be easily swayed into making harsh judgments about people.  (4) It also appeared to me in this case that Bachmann was depending on or even stirring up anti-Muslim sentiment, a kind of sentiment I strongly oppose, for lots of reasons.  (More on this below.)

In addition to these factors, I soon saw news articles indicating that John McCain had spoken in defense of Huma Abedin on the Senate floor (see and ).  And then I read the opinion piece by Ed Rollins, former campaign manager for Bachmann, denouncing the accusations (see ).  The fact that these statements came from respected Republicans made me feel some confidence that the accusations were without foundation--or at least that they were distorting the facts or their significance.  More recently I learned that John Boehner (leader of the Republican majority in the House of Representatives) had also criticized Bachmann's statements (see ).  Though I hadn't investigated the facts myself, I assumed that these figures--especially McCain, who has spent time with Abedin--knew what they were talking about.

The only other information I had came from seeing a television interview with Keith Ellison, (like Bachmann) a Minnesota congressman, but unlike her, a Muslim.  He responded to accusations from Bachmann that came (if I understand or remember correctly) in the interview she did with Glenn Beck defending her previous accusations.  She apparently claimed that Ellison has ties with the Muslim Brotherhood and that he has tried to stop the inspector general from investigating the matters she's concerned about.  He responded that he has not ties with the Muslim Brotherhood, that he hasn't tried to stop any investigation but has raised questions about its basis, and furthermore that the inspector general has the task of investigating efficiency and effectiveness, not the sorts of concerns Bachmann is raising.

But having said all that (and adding that Congressman Ellison's assertions about himself seem credible to me), I have to say that I do not personally know the facts about Huma Abedin's relatives' ties to particular organizations.  I assume that any concerns about these ties were considered by the State Department or other responsible parties.  In fact, I've wondered whether these ties--if they exist--could actually be one reason Abedin might be especially qualified to assist the Secretary of State in these times following the "Arab Spring."  Certainly, as a Muslim with Middle Eastern background, she would bring understanding of things going on in the Middle East and other areas with large Muslim populations.  She might helpfully assist in making contacts and communicating.

If it turns out that Huma Abedin is secretly working for radical foreign interests, then Bachmann may have done us a service.  But I think it's extremely unlikely that Abedin is doing any such thing--especially because her ethnic and religious identity would make it very hard for her to do such surreptitious work while at the same time being under the watchful eye of other professionals in the State Department.  It would be like accusing a Mormon in the State Department of secretly working for world domination by the LDS Church (The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, to use its official title).  I would be unlikely to believe such an accusation, even if kooky statements by this hypothetical Mormon's in-laws were quoted or passages of scripture that talk about the fall of nations and the triumph of Zion were cited by the accusers.  (Jews and Catholics, by the way, have been accused of similar conspiracies.)

I should add a word about the "Muslim Brotherhood."  I don't know much about this organization.  It's commonly referred to as radical. and perhaps it is--though I believe you could make a case for calling the Tea Party or even calling either of the major US political parties radical, especially if you're very selective in finding quotations from the most extreme adherents.  I believe Egypt recently elected a member of the Muslimi Brotherhood as president.  If this is true, it may be a cause for concern--though actually running a country tends to bring out people's moderation and pragmatism.  And I believe it will serve us better to work positively with the democratically elected leader of Egypt than to brand him "radical."  If we really want people in other countries to elect their own leaders, then we have to learn to deal with the choices people in those countries make.  I hope the era is long past when we sent the CIA in to undo election results we didn't agree with in other countries.

Finally, a few of the reasons I'm wary of the sorts of accusations Bachmann is making even though I don't know all the facts:

(A) As I've already noted, I believe attacks on people's patriotism are dangerous.  In fact, I believe that such attacks are, generally speaking, unpatriotic.  I've written recently at length on this subject at .

(B) I believe promoting conspiracy theories also tends to be dangerous and destructive.  It's true that there are and have been conspiracies, of various kinds.  But most conspiracy theories are extreme and irrational, and they tend to feed a spirit of suspicion, fear, and antagonism.  They also lead people into a kind of craziness in which they may end up doing things as bad as or worse than the things they are opposing.  Naziism used conspiracy theories about the evil intentions of Jews to stoke up antagonism and justify horrific persecution.  Senator Joseph McCarthy, though perhaps having some facts on his side, went so far with speculative and inaccurate accusations that he famously created an atmosphere of fear and did damage to many good people's lives and reputations until finally the Senate, with Utah's Senator Arthur V. Watkins as a leading figure, voted to censure him.

In my view, the conspiracy theory mentality tends to damage the three great virtues of faith, hope, and charity.  As a Latter-day Saint, I agree with Elder Boyd K. Packer's view that we should trust in God and look to our Church leaders rather than succumb to the mentality often associated with conspiracy theorists.  (In 1992, at a time when some fringe political figures were arguing for extreme responses to what they considered the dangers posed to the country, Elder Packer said, "There are some among us now who have not been regularly ordained by the heads of the Church and who tell of impending political and economic chaos, the end of the world--something of the 'sky is falling, chicken licken' of the fables. They are misleading members to gather to colonies or cults. Those deceivers say that the Brethren do not know what is going on in the world or that the Brethren approve of their teaching but do not wish to speak of it over the pulpit. Neither is true." See “To Be Learned Is Good If . . .," Oct. 1992 General Conference.)

(C) Closely connected with the conspiracy theory mentality is the tendency to engage in guilt by association.  Given the nature of human life, it's hard for any of us not to be related to or otherwise associated with people who might draw suspicion on us if it's assumed that we share the same views or are guilty of similar deeds.  Someone has pointed out that the Bush family (meaning the family of two recent presidents of the United States) had personal association with the bin Laden family--the very family with which the man behind the September 11 attacks was connected.  I believe any assertion of guilt by association should be treated with suspicion; if it appears to be based on fact, it still needs to be examined carefully for the significance of the association to be determined.

(D) A particular kind of "guilt by assocation"--one based on religious belief--is especially prone to abuse.  Currently, Muslims are among those most likely to be thought ill of in America simply because of their religious beliefs.  Though some Muslim extremists have done terrible things, I believe there are serious dangers with focusing on Muslims or on Islam in general as a threat.  I empathize with Muslims because, as a Mormon, I've seen my own religion treated in similar ways.  I believe Islam is a great religion worthy of respect and that the vast majority of Muslims contribute as positively to the world as people of any other large group.  Many Latter-day Saint scholars and Church leaders have had positive things to said about Islam and Muslims.  I've collected and linked some of these statements in the following blog post:

I look forward to learning more about the facts in the case of Huma Abedin.  I'm depending on credible and reasonable people to do the fact checking.  But in the meantime--whatever the precise facts may be--I have many reasons for finding the approach Michele Bachmann has taken on this issue to be wrong headed and even "dangerous," to quote John Boehner--with whom I often disagree, but who I think has the right instincts on this issue.  And I greatly respect John McCain for his strong defense of Abedin--and even more, his defense of values that help unite us in positive ways as a nation.
P.S. (7-23-2012):
Since writing this I've run into another article on the subject:

Two paragraphs especially caught my attention, again because they quote Republicans I like and respect (not that I entirely agree with them on other matters):
Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham, meanwhile, told Politico the attacks were "ridiculous." Abedin, he said, "is about as far away from the Muslim Brotherhood view of women and ideology as you possibly could get. She's a very modern woman in every sense of the word, and people who say these things are really doing her a disservice because they don't know what they're talking about, and I don't know what their motivations are, but clearly it says more about them than it does her."
On Thursday morning on NPR's Diane Rehm show, Republican Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida said, "I don't share the feelings that are in that letter. Obviously, every member of Congress has a right to express their opinion and every member of Congress is held accountable for their opinion, if they're right or if they're wrong... I'm very very careful and cautious about ever making accusations like that about anyone."

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